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A look back at Duke men’s basketball’s history against Arkansas in the NCAA tournament

<p>Duke, led by senior Grant Hill, fell to Arkansas in the 1994 NCAA tournament championship game.</p>

Duke, led by senior Grant Hill, fell to Arkansas in the 1994 NCAA tournament championship game.

At the now-defunct Charlotte Coliseum, a last-minute three from Arkansas’ Scotty Thurman brought Duke to its knees less than 150 miles from its home campus in the final of the 1994 NCAA tournament.

Now, 28 years on, the Razorbacks and Blue Devils are set for another high-stakes game—this time at San Francisco’s Chase Center. Head coach Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks out-muscled No. 1-seed Gonzaga in a Thursday-night thriller while head coach Mike Krzyzewski and his Duke team continue their odyssey after a hard-fought win against Texas Tech a couple of hours later.

With these two programs set for their third postseason meeting Saturday night, let’s take a second to reflect on the brief—but tense—history between them.

Aside from a regular-season game that Arkansas won 98-88 in late 1990, both times the Razorbacks and Blue Devils have met have not only been in the postseason but in the Final Four or later. Eight months before that regular-season matchup, Duke faced Arkansas in the Final Four with a championship berth at stake in Denver for the first matchup of a fierce early-90s rivalry.

Krzyzewski’s men, coming off of a national semifinal defeat the year prior to eventual runner-up Seton Hall, possessed a No. 3 seed to Razorback head coach Nolan Richardson and company’s No. 4 seed and played lights-out all night. Christian Laettner was typically excellent with 19 points and 14 rebounds, joined by Robert Brickey with 17 points and 11 rebounds and Phil Henderson with 28 points and eight rebounds, respectively. The Blue Devils cruised past a 46-43 first-half slog to snag a 97-83 win by the final whistle and book Duke’s second ticket to the title game under Krzyzewski.

It may have lost that final by 30 to an all-time UNLV squad, but Arkansas was the team that allowed it to be there in the first place. Duke fans will remember that first game fondly, undoubtedly, but in the historical sense, the Razorbacks have the last laugh.

Poetically, the Blue Devils got revenge against UNLV in the Final Four of the 1991 NCAA tournament—one they would ultimately win against Roy Williams’ Kansas in the title game—and repeated as champions the following year with a victory against Michigan’s famed "Fab Five." After a 1993 defeat in the Round of 32 to California, Duke rebounded the next year to reach the final of the 1994 NCAA tournament for a date with the Razorbacks.

Arkansas lost just three games that season—all in the SEC—and cruised to the national final in Charlotte, beating the likes of Michigan and Arizona along the way. Leading the way for the Razorbacks that season was eventual NBA champion Corliss Williamson, who earned Most Outstanding Player distinction after his team’s eventual 76-72 triumph. Williamson also took Arkansas to the 1995 title game, but couldn’t help Richardson and company repeat against historic blue-blood UCLA.

That 1994 championship game was one of the closest contests in the exciting decade of college basketball that was the 1990s. A neck-and-neck first 39 minutes positioned the game on a knife’s edge for the final 60 seconds, when Thurman’s trey with 50 seconds to go gave Arkansas a lead it, at last, wouldn’t surrender.

“We played against a great team and one of the great coaches in our sport in Nolan [Richardson],” said Krzyzewski of the 1994 title game at Friday's media availability. “It was a heck of a game and it came down to, really, a timeout, and I felt we knew Scotty Thurman was going to get the ball. We got a fingernail on it, which didn't affect its trajectory, and he knocked it down.”

“Those things are disappointing in that you don't win, but I wasn't disappointed with the effort,” Krzyzewski added. “We really had a great year.”

Fast forward almost 30 years, and both teams are once again meeting in March after impressive regular seasons. Duke rides a late-season surge from sophomore guard Jeremy Roach and an encouraging uptick in output from projected lottery pick Paolo Banchero, while Arkansas is high on momentum after a convincing defensive win against Gonzaga and regular-season triumphs against Auburn, Tennessee and Kentucky.

Call it fate, call it luck—call it whatever you want, really—but this will be the fourth time the Blue Devils and Razorbacks meet and the third time they meet in the postseason. Like almost every game this March, Saturday promises to be a blockbuster. Will Duke avenge its 1994 shortcoming and make a storybook run to the Final Four? Or will Arkansas continue its one-up on the Blue Devils and send itself to the first national semifinal of the Musselman era?

Only a hard-fought 40 minutes will answer these questions on this short, but fierce rivalry. Regardless of the result, it’s sure to be yet another one for the history books.


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